The legacy of John F. Kennedy

On November 22nd, 1963, U.S President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas. The assassination of American president JFK was a national tragedy and etched itself forever in the American consciousness. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office following the death of Kennedy.

Document A is Johnson’s first speech to Congress as the President of the United-States. He addresses Congress a few days after the assassination, on November 27th, 1963, and uses this opportunity as a call for all American people to unite and to keep JFK’s legacy alive.

Document B is a photograph of Garry Winogrand from 1964. The picture is called ‘Dealey Plaza’ which is the exact location where Kennedy was shot. A group of people is gathered at the site of JFK’s assassination. One man holds a camera and a picture and the woman next to him carries in her hand what seems to be a recording device.

Document C  is an article from The Atlantic entitled ‘The Legacy of John F. Kennedy’ published in 2013. The author, Alan Brinkley, writes about the impact of JFK’s death on American people and reviews his presidency with a critical eye. By providing an account of John F. Kennedy’s memory and legacy from 1963 to more recent times, this dossier directly addresses the notion ‘Mémoire: héritages et ruptures’.

How was JFK’s heritage established and carried throughout time? In the light of these documents, we will discuss how the myth of this American president was built through the power of images and the federating force of a national trauma. We will then analyze how the dossier questions this myth and unravels the disparities between perception and reality regarding JFK’s life and legacy.

In many ways, JFK was an unprecedented political figure who captured the imagination of a nation and became this iconic pop-culture symbol. His huge popularity and sometimes idealization are encapsulated in the three documents. Indeed, in document A, for instance, President Johnson gives an extremely praiseful tribute to Kennedy by using laudatory terms to refer to him, ‘The greatest leader of our time’ (line 5), and by romanticizing JFK’s accomplishments and hopes (line 9 to 14). Whereas, we will see in more details later that Kennedy’s presidency experienced highs and lows and was not perfect at all. But it is fair to say that a political speech given right after his death is expected to be subjective.

However, document B and C also

depict the large popularity of Kennedy. Garry Winogrand’s photograph shows people gathered at the site of President Kennedy’s assassination, one year later. This picture gives an insight into a group of people who appear to be camera-wielding tourists standing at the location where JFK was killed. Two men hold photographs in their hands and show them off as if they would try to sell them. The scene photographed is slightly confusing because of the disorienting expressions and gestures they have. It somehow reflects an obsession of American people about Kennedy’s death and the ambient anxiety following his assassination.

Alan Brinkley’s article echoes this strong interest of Americans regarding JFK’s life and tragic death even decades after he died: ‘Every year, nearly 350 000 people visit the place’ (line 3); ‘Visitors from all over the world have signed their names in the memory books, and many have written tributes’ (line 10). The act of going back to the Dealey Plaza almost evokes a religious ritual, a pilgrimage.

In document 3, Kennedy is for instance compared to Jesus Christ (line 12) in one of the written tributes at the Museum in Dallas. The worshipping attitude towards JFK adopted by many Americans points out that Kennedy became undeniably a myth in the overall American psyche. The construction of this myth was propped up by different factors. First of all, mass media played a key role in the rising of the 35th president even before he was murdered. Alan Brinkley in his article sheds a light on the significant role of television to increase the president’s popularity: ‘A witty and articulate speaker, he seemed built for the age of television.

To watch him on film today is to be struck by the power of his presence and the wit and elegance of his oratory’ (line 43-45). Indeed, JFK was the first true TV president. He grasped the importance and potential of this relatively new media and knew how to put himself and his family in the best light. At a time of Golden age for TV (roughly after WW2 to the 60s), Kennedy realized how much television was permeating American life and, through charm and charisma, he made himself welcome in America’s living rooms. People came to know him in a more personal way than any of his predecessors which made his death even more tragic and traumatic.

Alan Brinkley underlines the power of images and how it shaped the way Kennedy was perceived (line 38-40). He was the youngest president elected, he was viewed as a healthy family man and a war hero (line 40-43). It is important to bear in mind that thanks to the media coverage, JFK embodied the symbol of a shining new age and hope. Media was the very foundation of his popularity before but also after his assassination. Garry Winogrand’s photograph exemplifies that. The use of cameras and images allowed people to immortalize JFK’s story.

Moreover, the news of Kennedy’s death was officially announced on television. For a few days, broadcast television networks interrupted their regular programs and provided non-stop coverage of the tragedy. As Americans gathered around their television sets, they witnessed the live murder of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on National TV and watched the President’s funeral. This was unprecedented in American history, they had never experienced anything like that as a nation before. Similarly, President Johnson’s address before the joint session of Congress was filmed and broadcasted on CBS. Added to that, the circumstances of his death also widely contributed to building the myth of JFK.

As it was already observed in document B and C, the death of JFK was a national tragedy affecting most Americans and bringing people and tourists from all over the country and sometimes foreigners to visit the Dealey Plaza or the Sixth-floor Museum in Dallas dedicated to him. The circumstances of his assassination left America in total shock. The Warren Commission, which was established by President Johnson to investigate the murder, did not bring enough answers, or at least, not satisfying enough for some Americans, especially because the accused murderer Lee Harvey Oswald was killed without giving his side of the story.

The death of Kennedy remained the subject of many speculations and, with time, a series of conspiracy theories started to flourish as it is alluded in document C: ‘At least many visitors write about the possible conspiracies that led to JFK’s assassination’ (line 12). Kennedy’s assassination has haunted the American psyche for the last half-century. The myth of JFK has certainly been fueled over the years by the obsession of American people towards the grey areas surrounding the investigation of his murder and their need to find out the truth.

The suddenness of Kennedy’s death was also a federating force as it is illustrated in document A. Johnson’s speech is an example of the way JFK’s sudden death was a tool to rally Americans and bring people together in a time of national grief and shock (line 71). In his address before the joint session of Congress, the new President invited several times Americans to continue the work JFK began: ‘I need your help. I cannot bear this burden alone. I need the help of all Americans, and all America’ (23); ‘let us continue’ (line 32). It was a challenge and a call upon all Americans to participate in the next chapter of their country. American patriotism pervades his entire speech, for instance, with the reference to what would be identified as American values and beliefs (line 17-21) and through the national anthem’s quote at the end of the speech.

The aftermath of the assassination turned Kennedy, who was already popular, into a myth, an idealized version of himself and his presidency. This idealization prevailed for a long time in American public opinion. As mentioned before, the power of imagery cultivated and sustained the iconic symbol of Kennedy. Document B is the perfect illustration of this mythification process. The pictures of Kennedy’s commemoration, as well as the photographer inside Winnogrand’s photograph, encapsulate the way images contributed to the adulation of JFK.

This dossier explores the mythification of Kennedy and questions the disparities between the myth and the reality and how the perception of the 35th president evolved through time.  The contrast between Johnson’s address and Brinkley’s article is particularly striking. In document A, Kennedy is depicted as ‘the greatest leader of our time’ (line 2). Johnson emphasized Kennedy’s hopes for the future and some of his accomplishments (line 9-14). In his speech, Kennedy is, figurately speaking, elevated to an immortal political monument: ‘John Fitzgerald Kennedy lives on the immortal words and works that he left behind’ (line 5).

Document B epitomizes this idea as well by showing that Kennedy also had, literally speaking, physical places turned into monuments in his memory where people could go to commemorate his legacy. In opposition, Alan Brinkley’s article gives a more critical perspective. The author goes behind and beyond the myth of Kennedy and offers a more nuanced account. Indeed, the comparison and confrontation between document A and C reveal contradictions regarding JFK’s life and achievements.

Brinkley insists on the multi-faceted life of Kennedy. Although, the author echoes the fact that Americans embraced JFK’s popular image as a ‘handsome’, ‘athletic’, ‘captivating’ and ‘family’ man (line 49), he also brings out a more complex truth and exposes how reality was distorted. In his article, it appears that the way JFK was perceived did not match reality: ‘Kennedy’s image of youth and vitality is, to some degree, a myth. He spent much of his life in hospitals’ (line 61). In parallel, documents A presents Kennedy as a moral compass for Americans: ‘The ideas and ideals which he so nobly represented’.

Whereas, document C highlights Kennedy’s infamous and controversial private life: ‘Like his father, he was obsessed with the ritual of sexual conquest ― before and during his marriage, before and during his presidency’ (line 64). This dossier not only calls into question Kennedy’s character and life but also his legacy as a president. In document A, Johnson insists on JFK’s project ideas and his presidency’s aspirations: ‘the dream of conquering space […] the dream of equal rights for all Americans whatever their race or color’ (line 9-15). The speech completely eludes the failures that Kennedy faced during his first two years in the White House.

In contrast, in Alan Brinkley’s article, the review of JFK’s work as a president is once again more critical. Although the author recognizes several points mentioned by Johnson such as Kennedy’s efforts towards easing relationships with Cuba and with the Soviets (line 22-26) and his attempts to end racial segregation and to improve healthcare systems (line 33-34), Brinkley certainly identifies failures during JFK’s presidency. He describes Kennedy’s first year in the White House as ‘a disaster’ (line 16) and uses the example of the ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion in Cuba. He also reproaches him to have been a bystander for the first two years before taking real actions regarding the issue of civil rights (line 30). The author mentions his failure to pass several bills on education and healthcare (35). However, Brinkley somehow mirrors Johnson’s speech in some regards.

When President Johnson delivered his first address to Congress, he solemnly asked to Congress and to America to unite and to keep JFK’s legacy alive: ‘No words are strong enough to express our sense of determination to continue the forward thrust of America he began’ (line 7-8). In Brinkley’s article which was written fifty years later, the author acknowledges how Kennedy’s death enabled Johnson to pass many of the bills JFK worked on: ‘But most of his bills became law after his death – in part of his successor’s political skill, but also because they seemed like a monument to a martyred president’ (line 36-37).

Parts of JFK’s political legacy also came to life after he died as his death triggered an emotional ground for action and put pressure on Congress. Thanks to that, Johnson was able to push through several legislations such as the landmark civil rights act of 1964 that abolished segregation.

To conclude, this dossier demonstrates and explores the mythification of President John F. Kennedy and how it has impacted the way his legacy was constructed and carried through time. From president to popular icon and national martyr, JFK’s memory and legacy have evolved with time and raised more critical opinions. But ultimately, the story of the 35th president has kept haunting America’s mind and imagination even decades his assassination. This historical event and American tragedy have been represented in literature and cinema many times like in the recent movie ‘Jackie’ directed by Pablo Larrain released in 2016.